Manage the design system effectively
Design systems are driven by the community around them. Adoption happens because of the value the design system brings and the advocacy from teams successfully implementing it. Well-defined governance manages the expectations around how a design system is used, updated, and maintained. It is as much a cultural way of working as it is a working agreement between the design system and its users. It sets the tone for how decisions are made. If the governance approach is too enforcement driven and not adoption driven, it prevents product teams from engaging with the design system team. The way changes are made, and new patterns are introduced should be clear, accessible, and predictable for all teams.
Products and systems inevitably change. A healthy design system is set up to anticipate and welcome the evolving needs of the business and product teams. The more products a design system supports, the more flexible it must become. The system needs to incorporate new patterns, adjust existing patterns, and respond to misapplied or misused patterns. How each pattern is managed depends on the underlying culture around change for the organization.
”Establishing a design system governance process is perhaps one of the most important things you can do to prevent entropy from taking over your design system.”
- Brad Frost, Independent web designer, developer, and consultant
Each organization needs to adopt governance workflows that function within internal constraints. When establishing governance standards, here are a few scenarios to start with:
Introducing new elements: What happens when a team needs something that isn’t covered as a part of the design system, or the design system team wants to add new elements? Establish a workflow so that every product doesn’t find itself bolting on top of the design system and diminishing its value.
Promoting patterns: Is a new element a one-off special case or a best new practice? To determine if a one-off element should be promoted, put it through a series of tests and validations before formally adding it.
Reviewing and adapting patterns: Have a council or group of users test and validate new patterns and architectures before release.
Releasing design system updates: Determine in advance how frequently and what kinds of releases the team supports. A predictable release cadence insulates the design system roadmap from being taken over because of the would-be urgent needs of a particular product or project.
There are common mistakes to avoid when developing a design system, such as allowing special projects and interests to skirt the rules or get preferential treatment. If one product voice dominates the conversation, the design system becomes counterproductive for other adopting teams. If this is the case, take a step back and re-evaluate the components in question. Likely, the design system has not received the same benefit of iterating over time the way other products have. Without an opportunity to iterate over time, design systems like legacy products become junk drawers filled with exceptions and stale components. Governance helps drive reinvestment when applied early and consistently.
When teams fail to adopt or adhere to the design system, it is important to understand why there is a gap and address the underlying issue. Adopting teams may lack the bandwidth to adopt the design system and meet other goals set for them by the organization. They may be managing multiple stakeholders, not all of which are aligned behind the design system.
Executive support is crucial to align organizational goals. While governance is more likely to uncover organizational misalignment than solve it, it reveals the areas needing additional attention and effort. When established early on, governance sets the boundaries for actionable discussion and design system evolution.